I haven’t found a suitable way to talk about David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, so Imma just start. Hopefully I’ll find something along the way.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a young couple living together. Early on in the film there is a car crash. We do not see how or why this happened but Casey Affleck is dead. After Rooney Mara identifies his corpse at the morgue his body, still covered in a sheet stands up and starts walking the corridors of the hospital, unseen by the staff. He returns to the home that in life he was so reluctant to leave and remains. He experiences the history of its walls, and its future. Watches the lives of the inhabitants until there is no more to be witnessed.
Then the film ends.
But it kinda doesn’t, at least not for me, it’s still running in my head. I’m still trying to process what I saw. That’s why this is hard. The film lays some pretty clear themes out there: time, space, the ways we impress parts of ourself onto each. Grief and loss, what it means to recover, what it means to not. One character in the runtime expresses a definitive nihilist viewpoint that seems to be taken quite seriously, but I don’t think the film quite buys into it.
Like, who cares if our lives and passions and works and struggles are remembered in the future? The future wouldn’t be the future without them. Perhaps instead of thinking of the present and future witnesses of your actions you should allow the cosmos itself to be your audience. It itself is going to be the grandest testament to your actions.
Maybe it’s about that, it might not be. It’ll probably mean something else to me soon enough. I’ll either rewatch it and pick out something new, or never do so and let the way it dissolves in my mind change it for me. The thing which won’t be changing for me is that of the film’s central image, that of the bedsheet ghost.
For a film as wildly experimental as this I think that remains its most ambitious element. It’s not a comedy, but it’s daring you watch it as such. It’s painting a picture that is really easily dismissed. Really easy to laugh at. It has those rounded edges that make it look like an instagram snap. It’s shot in 1.33:1 which is like the modern hipster ratio. It’s a film that approaches its very construction with humility and vulnerability.
Behind me in the cinema was someone who every few minutes or so would give out another dismissive, performative sigh. Which, like, total dickhead move to be sure; but the film leaves itself open to that reaction. Experimental film can often be super harsh and aggressive, tends to be a field, which even more so than regular filmmaking, is dominated by these self-assured auteurish men. Their films so often being designed to shock, to announce themselves, to be big bold artworks that are so straight faced in their delivery that one is forced to take the whole thing seriously.
A Ghost Story trips onto the scene with so little fanfare it genuinely feels like something different. It’s inviting you into its way of seeing the world, I don’t think you’ll see any violent reactions to it. If you want, you can say no to it at any point. It’s so honest about what it is that you’ll be able to make the jokes real easy. It can be wild and varied enough that you’re carried through it, even if you’re just hate watching by that point.
Because even if y’all not into the themes or the plot (as far as the two are distinguishable) you got the cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo, frequent collaborator with Adam Wingard and Hannah Fidell, and director in his own right. He’s kinda channelling the spirt of Bruno Delbonnel into these glowing spare frames, the shape of them letting him get all intimate with the actors. Even when he be going loosey and handheld there’s a delicacy to the images he be creating, it’s accomplished work.
And with the dialogue being pared back to the extreme there’s this grand ethereal score by longtime Lowery collaborator Daniel Hart that plucks and stings. There ain’t a second of it wasted. It’s beautiful. So is the film. So is life.
A note of mild consternation to end on. As far as bedsheet ghosts go in contemporary culture there is one other touchstone that looms large. Merry Graves’ now defunct webcomic pictures for sad children, many of the strips of which featured the character of paul (who is a ghost). paul died before the run started but found himself still in his earthly body. To cope he drapes a sheet over himself and tries to do his best.
It’s undeniably a very different work to A Ghost Story, but the two do tackle similar themes surrounding the cosmic absurdity of life and death. I’m honestly just hoping Lowery never read it, pictures for sad children is truly next level work that its creator chose to remove from the world. As far as I’m aware the internet has done a surprisingly good job of respecting her wishes. I’d honestly lose a lot of respect for Lowery if it came out that he’d used it as a foundation without respecting the wishes of its author.
That’s all speculation though. And speculation aside I’m in total love with this dude as a filmmaker. Dropping Pete’s Dragon then this in two consecutive years. That’s next level work. I’m in for whatever he does next.
A Ghost Story is currently screening in UK cinemas.